December 13th, 2012
01:33 AM ET

Should America try to be like Scandinavia?

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By Global Public Square

Here at GPS we often report how the United States has fallen behind in a number of global rankings. For example, The Economist has just published what it calls the "Where to be born" index: a list of countries which provide the best opportunities and the highest quality of life. In 1988, America was #1; now it is joint 16th. Three of the top five countries today are in Scandinavia: Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

Or look at the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index. The U.S. has fallen to #7 in the latest rankings. Finland and Sweden are in the top five.

Or look at corruption. The United States ranks 19th in Transparency International's new index. Denmark and Finland are rated the cleanest countries.

Now you can spot two trends. On the one hand, America has been losing its edge. But I'm also struck by the rise of Scandinavia, a region that includes Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and if you broaden that definition, Finland and Iceland. Each of these countries seem to dominate global ranking lists. Why? What is their secret sauce?

Well, Scandinavia is actually much more free market-oriented than most people realize. Capital is allocated by the market, the government doesn't own companies, regulation is usually light, corruption is non-existent. Companies can hire and fire easily, labor moves around. But these countries do tax a lot and spend a lot – on education, childcare, health and other things.

Now,  a recent MIT paper suggests there are limits to this model. It's called "Can't we all be more like Scandinavians?" In brief, it points out how the Scandinavian welfare system provides a number of benefits: more vacations, better healthcare, more equality. But when it comes to innovation, the U.S. still wins. For example, if you look at patents filed per million residents, the study shows the U.S. has moved far ahead of Scandinavian countries.

Here's why this is important. Unlike say, a healthcare system (which only benefits people of one particular country), innovation has global impacts. New American inventions spread around the world. According to the paper's authors, Scandinavian countries "free-ride" on U.S. research and development. But if the U.S. became Scandinavian, it would spend less on innovation, which might reduce global growth rates (and thus, discredit the Scandinavian model).

The paper has been criticized for using patents as the marker for innovation. But even so, this is an important discussion. And it ties in to many of the questions our leaders are grappling with. Does the state need to make societies more equal? Does that come at a cost?

There is much to admire about Scandinavia: on education, on healthcare, on energy. But that doesn't mean we need to become Scandinavian. We are more individualistic, free-wheeling, ready to take risks. Americans don’t need to stop being American. But why not look at how these countries in Scandinavia make investments in healthcare and early education and how all of these things create greater equality of opportunity. That is after all what helps people succeed, no matter where they come from or how poor they are.

The truth is, Scandinavian countries are fulfilling a huge part of the American dream better than America these days. Thankfully, we're still an innovation powerhouse, and we need to spend more on R&D rather than cutting those budgets. And perhaps we need to target some of that innovative thinking towards restoring the American Dream of equal opportunity. That would be a truly American solution to an American problem.

soundoff (586 Responses)
  1. Polar Bear

    The pendulum's swinging way left. Once the drunken binge is over and it's time to sober back up, it'll go the other way. Then back again and on and on. Always has been that way, always will be. Just depends on when you live and where the pendulum's swinging while you're alive. There are no new concepts. Both extremes don't work and we grapple for something in between.

    December 13, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
    • I Am God.

      Seriously? So far I have seen the "left" trying to compromise with the "right." Who are the ones that aren't negotiating? Oh, yeah, the right.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
      • JR

        You're clearly a deaf partisan stooge who believes the garbage spewed by the left as if it were written by Vishnu himself

        December 13, 2012 at 7:50 pm |
  2. Matt

    Sweden Population 10M
    Denmark Population 6M
    Norway Population 5M
    Finland Population 5M

    The US Population 315 Million

    Its isn't the "problem' that is unmanageable, it is the scale of the problem that is unmanageable

    Example, we know how to put out fires, if its an acre or even a 1000 acres we can manage it, but a million acres is no longer manageable regardless of what you do. The best case scenario is to try and win a few battles i.e get as many people out as possible but know that you will lose the war.

    There are too many people living here...

    December 13, 2012 at 6:34 pm |
    • what1ever

      This is a staggeringly lame excuse.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
      • Matt

        I gave a position and validated it, please do the same...

        December 13, 2012 at 7:49 pm |
  3. kevin


    December 13, 2012 at 6:35 pm |
  4. KEVIN

    SKYRIM is for the NORDS!!!

    December 13, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  5. what1ever

    So, the premise of this article is that, everything is better over there, but we should be ourselves, which is worse. That would be like if I was the coach of the Raiders and I said "we shouldn't try to be like the Patriots and win so many games. We're the Raiders. We should be like ourselves. Losing is what we do, that's what makes us unique."

    December 13, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  6. Martin

    So what your saying is we need more white protestants who think the same way....oh and a much smaller population.,,,,

    December 13, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
  7. Matt

    Has anyone pointed out that these Scandinavian countries, to which I've been and very much admired, have very small populations with very little diversity relative to the US and UK, little to no issues with indigenous rights and no irons in the colonial fire (short of Denmark's claim to Greenland)? Aplles and oranges if you compare to very large states like US, China, India and Brazil...which are morasses of diversity and special interests. Easier to pull stuff off in Norway with a small population of Norse and a dozen Saami....

    December 13, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • what1ever

      What does that have to do with an issue like healthcare? Having a diverse population is meaningless in virtually every issue. You still need to go to the doctor.

      December 13, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
      • RickInNY

        You're obviously too ignorant to understand his point dipsh!!t. Read slowly now. We are about 30 times the size of those countries. Their citizens pay 50-60% of their earnings to taxes, to support all those freebies. There is just no way to give everyone, everything for free in the US. People need to work, support their families, with maybe some government assistance to get over the hump. Government is NOT in place to support us, it is not their job. Get a clue.

        December 13, 2012 at 8:17 pm |
  8. Matt

    We shouldn't make copmparisons where they aren't really valid. We CANNOT be Finland any nore than Finald can be "like" the US.

    December 13, 2012 at 6:44 pm |
  9. jdoe

    Innovation is great if it translates into a higher quality of life for most. The U.S. may be the most innovative country, but the American middle class has not benefited from it. What is the result of all the productivity gains? People work harder and longer to make ends meet, and are feeling less secure than ever. Maybe we should think in terms of real benefits for the middle class instead of just a few at the top.

    December 13, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  10. mahmoud el-darwish

    "But I'm also struck by the rise of Scandinavia, ...Each of these countries seem to dominate global ranking lists. Why? What is their secret sauce?"

    Mr Zakaria
    You touched on a lot of good reasons but here are a few that you may not have considered:
    1) They are Mono-cultural . Whilst multiculturalism is admirable, it tends to diffuse focus and solidarity
    2) They are protectionist. you mentioned Free Markets enterprises but in actuality, Scandinavia is immured behind a wall of protectionism
    3) They are Socio-Capitalist. You mentioned high taxes. With high INCOME taxes you essentially semi-finance socialism- a system that ensures that the benefits of financial success accrue to all strata of a society irrespective of their direct contribution to an economy.
    4) They tend to be smaller populations. Switzerland is roughly the geographic area of the US State of Delaware and it's population has always been monitored to ensure that there's a balance between available jobs and the domestic labor force.

    December 13, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  11. stfu

    I find articles like this do nothing more than feed into the belief & paranoia that during this Administration – America has somehow significantly & sharply declined in just about all of the above. I took the time to look up that "baby born index". It's extremely misleading to quote the statistic from 1988 where America was #1 and not mention that the current ranking went from 15 to 17 since the last Administration. And, even when the economy was doing well that ranking was in decline.

    Agreed we as country need to improve things but this sleeping beauty gloom & doom is draining.

    December 13, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • JR

      I don't think you have to worry about Fareed Zakaria being biased against your lord and savior Obama. Zakaria wears kneepads in the off chance Obama visits CNN for an interview

      December 13, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  12. gmc

    CFR or not, why is this plagiarist still employed?

    December 13, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
  13. Oh Long Johnson

    The US is ahead of Scandiland in innovation? Lets take a look at the Global Innovation Indices. Iceland and Finland are ahead of the US in the Boston Consulting Group metric ( with Sweden and Denmark just behind. The INSTEAD metric ( has Sweden at the top with Finland and Denmark ahead of the US and Iceland just behind. Norway is the only Scandiland country behind the US and in the big picture, not by much. No, the US is not the greatest country in the world by any metric. Scandinavian nations are at the top of just about every list there is. If I could move to any of those countries, I would.

    December 13, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
  14. Sheepleherder

    This macro view of the world is only pointing out that the US is basically ending up doing most of the hard, dirty work of maintaining a global civilization, getting it's figurative hands dirty, coming home late, tired and hungry while a lot of other countries are sitting around collecting welfare and making themselves pretty on someone elses dime. That is pretty much the way everything is now days, isn't it?

    December 13, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  15. c s

    The reason that the US debt is so large is really easy to understand. It is called the US military spending. Since 1940, the US has been in a wartime economy with huge deficit spending. The US spend more on the military than the next 14 largest military spenders. The US economy is certainly not equal to the next 14 largest economies. The only way for the US economy to recover is to bring home all of our troops and close the over 700 US foreign military bases in over 100 countries. Republican Ron Paul advised the US to bring home our troops but the rest of the Republican party will not accept it.

    The US needs a peacetime economy to recover but the Republicans refuse to do it. The US spend hundreds of billions of dollars defending the Persian gulf so oil go flow to Europe and Asia. Very little of this oil reaches the US because it is too far away.

    December 13, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
    • JR

      lol "because it's too far away" That part made me laugh out loud. Way to not know ANYTHING about global affairs. Even your assertion that peace time economies are good for the US is historically incorrect

      December 13, 2012 at 7:41 pm |
  16. JR

    Congratulations Obama! Another accomplishment under your belt. #16!! You know what they say about 16th place? Yeah I don't either.....

    December 13, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
    • I Am God.

      Wow obviously you are another whiny tea party extremist who is still whining and crying about the elections. Get a clue and get a life.

      December 13, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
      • JR

        Next time you need to wear your dental-dam because I think Obama scooped some of your brain matter out with that last kok skking you gave him.

        December 13, 2012 at 8:40 pm |
      • I Am God.

        JR maybe you should move on. Obama won with the electoral vote and the popular vote. If you don't like it then leave. All you are is a whiny conservative who can't get a life.

        December 13, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
      • JR

        lol leave? I'd rather force your pathetic pacifist assss out of my country at the end of my bayonet. I love it when liberals try to act tough. Bunch of tree hugging, Prius driving, pansies. How many times did you come home crying in elementary school because the bigger tougher kids beat you up?

        December 13, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
      • I Am God.

        hey JR your a complete idiot. I did my time with the Army when I was younger. What have you done? Sit in your trailer park drinking beers? Oh yeah you are so American. Not.

        December 13, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
      • JR

        Going to an Al Qaeda training camp in Pakistan doesn't count as doing time with the army

        December 13, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
      • I Am God.

        JR I was out there killing terrorists for you to sit in your trailer park drinking beers at eight in the morning.

        December 13, 2012 at 9:09 pm |
      • JR

        Most people don't consider killing coalition soldiers "killing terrorists"

        December 13, 2012 at 9:11 pm |
      • I Am God.

        JR are you a terrorist? Seems like your the only one on the blog claiming our soldiers are terrorists.

        December 13, 2012 at 9:12 pm |
      • I Am God.

        So what if I was kicked out of the military for having a relationship with Bradley Manning? I still served!

        December 13, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
      • JR

        American soldiers are terrorists. I support Al Qaeda.

        December 13, 2012 at 9:19 pm |
      • I Am God.

        Way to get your IP address on a federal watch list!

        December 13, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
      • JR

        Sorry JR, but they have will have your IP address on the list first before me. More extreme right wing organizations are on the FBI watch list. I am sure you are a part of one of those organizations.

        December 13, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
      • I Am FBI

        I Am God = ecoterrorist, communist sympathizer, Al-Qaeda sponsor; you're on the list sir...

        December 13, 2012 at 9:30 pm |
      • I Am JR. A Middle School Dropout Without A High School Degree

        You are hilarious JR. Keep this up and you'll be recognized by idiotic Rush Limbaugh

        December 13, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  17. Think About it

    Think about it: The US is way ahead in patents, but waaaaayyy behind in quality of early education, corruption standards and health care. So, in 20 or 30 years, Americans will all be too dumb, corrupt and sickly to invent anything, then Scandinavia will win on all fronts! Don't you just love journalistic opinion / logic? Oh, dear..... 🙂

    December 13, 2012 at 7:42 pm |
  18. Reasonably

    We are behind in rankings where it matters most. The American Dream has been outsourced to China.

    December 13, 2012 at 8:00 pm |
  19. Some Guy

    Light regulations? easy to hire and fire people? You can't be serious. Fareed needs to ride his bike in February in downtown Copenhagen because gas is $10.00 a gallon and cars have 180% tax on them used or new. You also get 2 years maternity leave and one year paternity leave. An entrepreneur will be very hesitant to risk his parents savings with that hanging over his head. Good for workers, bad for risk takers.

    It's exceptionally difficult to get rich there and it's very difficult to be extremely poor. That is the Scandinavian trade off.

    The Danes are a very happy and wonderful people, but business friendly it's not.

    December 13, 2012 at 8:11 pm |
    • mr.butters

      Actually if you look at the list of billionaires. An extremely high number come from Sweden.

      December 13, 2012 at 10:26 pm |
    • Garm

      Guess which coutry has the highest rate of business startups in the world? Denmark.

      December 14, 2012 at 8:32 am |
  20. van Norden

    This article seems to be a somewhat lame anthropological sound-byte. There are multiple missing axes upon which responsible metrics should be performed instead of blurting out these factoid-like pseudo-conclusions. There is much that is admirable to be found in our cousins to the north but there is much to be credited elsewhere in the world as well. However, before we make any further bold cultural comparisons, we should probably brush up on our geography. Finland, for instance, is not a Scandinavian country at all – although Denmark, Norway, and Sweden are. On the other hand, all four of the aforementioned are Nordic countries. I wonder which country has the best geographers?

    December 13, 2012 at 8:19 pm |
  21. darth vader


    December 13, 2012 at 8:22 pm |
  22. idiot

    the main reason for scandinavia's success are the enormous oil reserves that they have access to. Per capita, they are by far the biggest oil/gas producer/exporter. This is the "secret" to their wealth and one of the main reasons why people enjoy so many benifits.

    December 13, 2012 at 8:24 pm |
    • Nick

      No that would be Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and Iran. Next time try googling "biggest oil producers".

      December 13, 2012 at 9:20 pm |
      • idiot

        According to

        the top per-capita producers are

        United Arab Emirates
        Equatorial Guinea
        Saudi Arabia

        Norway is near the top [above Saudi Arabia, US, Canada or any Europen nations, for instance]

        Norway's oil production goes back to the 70's; they have built up a huge surplus because of this, over the years.

        December 14, 2012 at 5:44 am |
  23. janelle

    How about if the US tries to be more like the US, and not like Europe. How about we go back to understanding what freedom and liberty mean, and the responsibility freedom and liberty brings. How about we ensure the opportunity for everyone to succeed by his/her own merit instead of ensuring sustained poverty with government dependence? This country was founded to get away from European ideals, and this country became great on the idea of independance and freedom, liberty and justice for each and every citizen. Now we seem determined to jump right back to European ideas, that haven't worked anywhere, anytime.

    December 13, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • I Am God.

      My god, why do people like you even exist. The United States doesn't have one type of government; it is a government that has incorporated multiple governments from around the world. That is why we are unique.

      December 13, 2012 at 8:32 pm |
      • JR

        You have to be kidding me. The US created a unique system that had not existed before. It's not some mythical melting pot of political ideas. It was founded by a bunch former British white guys, to be nothing like anything in Europe. To suggest that it's a mix of governments would be also to suggest that the founding fathers were a mix of different cultures, which they were not. Dream on buddy. Maybe you should write a wish list to Obama and tell him your ideas for government. He might be willing to try something as absurd as what you suggest

        December 13, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
      • I Am God.

        JR you shouldn't even be talking since you are some dumb right winger that makes up his own unique history fit his dumb political ideology. To be nothing like Europe? You do remember that Great Britain at the time was a Republic Monarch right? And what is it now? A democratic republic just like us. I guess you should study your history better.

        December 13, 2012 at 8:38 pm |
      • JR

        You are aware that the US system is unique, and extremely different than the UK's parliamentary republic, right???? And let's pretend we were the same, how does this support your silly melting pot theory?
        Liberals hope and pray for a single world government, much like your clueless melting pot government idea. Silly silly liberals. Oh how little ye know

        December 13, 2012 at 9:00 pm |
      • I Am God.

        Hey JR it is pretty obvious that you know nothing. You don't even know any history.

        December 13, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
      • I Am God.

        Also we may have been unique during the beginning of our nation, but now multiple countries have adopted our type of government. You say that Europe is totally different from us when in actuality it isn't. We just have more political extremists like you in our midst unlike those other countries.

        December 13, 2012 at 9:04 pm |
      • JR

        You're an extremist pacifist pooooosy that is the predominant reason the US is floundering. You and your ilk are dumbing down society, and are a bunch of miscreant takers. You're the exact opposite of what the US was founded on. You're most likely some sort of foreign immigrant who thinks their kind will come in and change the system. Maybe you will, but it's a roach motel and you're only dooming yourself patsy

        December 13, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
      • I Am God.

        Hey JR lay off of the Fox News Entertainment. Seems like you are becoming even more uneducated then you are now. Don't know how that is possible, but you seem to be proving that theory.

        December 13, 2012 at 9:08 pm |
      • I Am God.

        The US needs to be fixed. It's an unfair system where the top has it all and the bottom is starving. We need a great man like Vladimir Lenin or Joseph Stalin to come fix all our problems. We need to create re-education schools, to send you foolish Republicans to. You need to fall in line, because change is coming

        December 13, 2012 at 9:16 pm |
      • I Am God.

        HAHAHAHA Typical JR. Can't face the music can you JR, so you think copying my profile name is going to get me frustrated? Please dozens of people have tried that and just made themselves even more idiotic. Proves that they are a complete child as well.

        December 13, 2012 at 9:17 pm |
      • I Am God.

        HAHAHA Silly JR! You think you can take my name and convince people I said these things? My ideas are well thought out and intelligent: you need to be sent to the re-education camps ASAP. Obama said change is coming, you've been warned JR!

        December 13, 2012 at 9:23 pm |
      • JR

        JR wow you are clearly endowed into that Fox News secret organization of propaganda aren't you? Re-education camps? You do realize that is more up your ally right? Your party is the only party trying to force creationism into every school.

        December 13, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
    • Shaun

      That is what we have been doing....and it did not work.

      December 13, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
    • Shaun

      Should America be like Scandinavia...that would never be possible, Scandinavians are pretty rational people.

      December 13, 2012 at 9:07 pm |
      • Nick


        December 13, 2012 at 9:14 pm |
    • Nick

      janelle its your childish approach to politics and government that is ruining the U.S. Maybe you should go audit some history classes as well as some political science courses. The U.S. government is failing because we have not figured out how to adapt. Just like Darwin's theory of evolution, if you cant adapt you die.

      December 13, 2012 at 9:18 pm |
      • I Am God.

        I couldn't agree more. We need to more closely adopt European style governments, if anything. Specifically the far eastern European style governments of old. Nothing's wrong with Communism if you do it right. These GOP lying skum are greedy and self-serving egotists.

        December 13, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
    • I Am God.

      I despise people who use words like "freedom" and "liberty." They are code words for racism, bigotry, and anti-liberal thought. I have never met a single Republican who was not a racist, and that includes Republicans of different cultural backgrounds. Alan West was serving his white masters as a slave, and I'm so glad he lost reelection. Herman Cain is a complete fool and sounds completely uneducated. And I bet Sarah Palin, Nikki Haley, and Michelle Bachmann all used to get around when they were younger. In my day, we used to call women like that something that started with an "sl" and ended with an "uts." Vile nasty Republicans

      December 13, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
      • I Am JR. A Middle School Dropout Without A High School Degree

        As a Liberal I will have to say you are wrong. I like freedom and I like liberty (since I have served in the military to protect that right). On the other hand conservatives, like you, want to enforce your idea of freedom and liberty, which is just not right.

        December 13, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
      • I Am JR. A Middle School Dropout Without A High School Degree

        As a REAL liberal, I'd have to disagree. The word has been used time and time again throughout history to subjugate one group under another. Everything that comes out of the GOPunks mouths is a code for racism, subjugation, or colonialism.

        December 13, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
      • Truth

        All blacks are highly racist, and wish death upon the human beings of the world.

        December 13, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
  24. Funland

    Please dont mention us in stories covering Scandinavia. If you did not learn geography at school it is not our fault.


    December 13, 2012 at 8:36 pm |
  25. GrandOldPatsy

    As the child of an ethnic Fin and a Dane, I approve.

    December 13, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  26. Mike C

    " But when it comes to innovation, the U.S. still wins. For example, if you look at patents filed per million residents, the study shows the U.S. has moved far ahead of Scandinavian countries."

    That's no indication of innovation. That's an indication of how broken the US patent system is. CNN is terrible. Why do I still read it?

    December 13, 2012 at 8:53 pm |
  27. Allen

    We should not compare ourselves to others, we should compare ourselves to ourselves. We should stride only to improve ourselves, relative to ourselves and not relative to others. That's the key to success.

    December 13, 2012 at 8:55 pm |
    • I Am JR. A Middle School Dropout Without A High School Degree

      We need to work for the collective good of all, one nation. When did it all start being about the individual? Countries that succeed are countries that put aside personal greed and work towards a great national unity, and maybe even one day, a world government, united under peace and prosperity, with no wealth gaps and no discrimination (except against vile and nasty Republicans and anybody in any kind of organized religion that threatens our great national unity). Obama's got us in the right direction. Without those obstructionists in the House, we'd be much closer, I'm afraid.

      December 13, 2012 at 9:55 pm |
      • I Am JR. A Middle School Dropout Without A High School Degree

        Wow still having that child like mentality aren't your JR? How old are you really? 5? 6?

        December 13, 2012 at 10:00 pm |
  28. jeremyhornephd

    To rate a country on the number of "patents filed per million residents" is folly, as just about any patent examiner knows. Patents filed does not mean that "the U.S. has moved far ahead of Scandinavian countries" or anyone else, for that matter, as the examiner will tell you that most patents are not really all that innovative and many should not be granted. Boldrin and Levine in a September 2012 report in the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis working paper series, 'The Case Against Patents', persuasively argue that the major of patent cases involve inventors wanting to protect their turf, rather than protecting innovation. Most patents are issued that protect small changes to existing technology and really are junk. Once again Zakaria lets his corporatist 'free-enterprise' ideology interfere with facts.

    December 13, 2012 at 8:56 pm |
  29. Chris O

    This is utter bull. I worked for 1 year at U.S. national lab as a scientist and literally ran screaming from the place. Good riddance U.S.A. you put about as much $$ into "innnovation" as hole in the head. The lab was falling the pieces, mold, rot and 1950's era bunkers even the water was brown. You couldn't pay me enough to live on Long Island and you definitely didn't.

    December 13, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
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